High-Profile Suicide: Are We Responding Correctly?

by Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.

Copyright © All Rights Reserved

That’s the thing about suicide. Try as you might to remember how a person lived his life, you always end up thinking about how he ended it.    

~Anderson Cooper


I don’t expect this will be a popular post. It may even seem to be callous.  There are three points to this article:

1. I feel strongly that glowing tributes to those who recently committed suicide may have unintended consequences such as giving permission to someone who may be on the brink but held back by the possibility of being judged.

2. I also think that the idea of, “If you’re depressed, talk to someone!” doesn’t address what is sometimes the real issue: When you talk to someone, they say stupid things to you.  Please learn to be kind to someone brave enough to share how desperate they feel.

3. Many who are affected by suicide think of it as a selfish act even though there are many who believe that no one has the right to tell another how much emotional pain they should be expected to endure (these may seem contradictory – but they’re not).

While I do believe that no one has the right to tell another human how much pain they should endure in this lifetime, I do believe that each of us has something of a responsibility to understand the impact our death – by our own hands – leaves on others.

As this article discusses, there are times it’s just okay to say, “They’ve endured a lot.  They’ve given a lot.  They were exhausted.  It’s okay.” And other times when it just doesn’t feel right, when it doesn’t feel just, and it angers and upsets people left behind, especially when those people are innocent.

I’m neither a stranger to suicides of those close to me nor am I a stranger to suicide ideation both personally and professionally. One of my best friends committed suicide a few years ago.  One of my ex-boyfriends committed suicide. I was an Emergency Services Psychiatric Clinician for years and saw my share of faux suicidal ideation and share of real suicides. I’ve wrestled with it myself many times.

Ever since Michael died in 2009, I’ve had many dark days where I’ve thought of ending it all. The last time I had even considered it was when my first marriage ended. From the end of the 80s to the early 90s, I thought of it often.

I didn’t do it because I had children and didn’t want to leave that on them.  I just couldn’t. There were so many abusers in the family – including their father – and I felt a duty to protect them.  That is why I left in the first place…but I was having a horrific time of it. All I could think of was ending it all.

The Dark Days

One day, shortly after leaving my first marriage…I FLED an abusive situation…click HERE TO READ THE POST for the story...I was shaking like a leaf in a doctor’s office. I was contemplating ending it all. This was a regular doctor…not a psychiatrist, but I could not stop shaking and my eyes were red from crying all night.  An older man I didn’t know reached across and took my hand and said, “You are a child of God and God loves you.”  I nodded and my shaking stopped. Later, I drove home, hysterical,   I wasn’t even sure if I – 10 years of Catholic school – even believed in God, I was in so much pain.  But I was sobbing and holding onto the steering wheel and saying, “I am a child of God and God loves me.”  I wanted to end it all so badly…but I kept saying that…I included that in the Mantra section of my workbook…

But the urge to kill myself was so intense. I kept imagining the end and it seemed so real to me to just smash my car into a railing on the highway at 80 mph.  It took everything I had to keep it straight and to drive home.   As I drove down the highway at a high rate of speed, I kept looking at the railing but repeating my mantra…it was a self-soothing mantra and it didn’t matter if I believed it or not….I said it, it comforted me and I somehow made it home.

And I lived…for my kids. I HAD TO.  I just had to.

Between that day and the weeks following Michael’s death when I was in so much excruciating pain I thought I could not live through it, I’d had almost no thoughts of suicide.

No matter how bad things got or how seemed, I refused to go quietly into that dark night so long as I had underage children. When Michael died, I still had an underage child.  Even though I was fairly certain that she loathed me for trying to keep her on the straight and narrow by being stricter with her than (according to her) any mother had the right to be, I still felt it was my duty to continue to do it.

The Aftermath of a Spouse’s Death

The times did not get easier. I lost everything in Michael’s illness. Everything. I lost him, I lost all financial security and I lost relationships with those closest to me.  People say such stupid things to you.

One such person, when I was sharing the depression I was still feeling 4 years after his death, told me that I was a miserable. human. being.

Last year when I was exhausted by everyone’s everything on the week of my birthday/our anniversary/Thanksgiving – my truly hardest week of the entire year, my very best friend told me that “the victim thing is getting old.” This from a person who asked me about something I really didn’t want to talk about, but then I did talk about it in a very emotional email –  I broke down in the email – and she LOST the email and then said, “Well I think I remember that it was about this and this is what I think about that…” (what she remembered was totally wrong and off-base and I just rolled my eyes moved on)..

When I didn’t respond to anything else she said, she was angry… I was emotionally exhausted and said (about her being angry at me), “You’re going to have to get in line…” she threw the victim insult at me.

I thought, “Sure. fine. whatever.” and we stopped speaking to each other.  She was angry I hadn’t RSVP’d to her son’s wedding.  Because it was the same week as my anniversary, I asked – months prior – if I could take my son with me for emotional support and they said yes, but when I went to RSVP – there was no plus 1. I brought that up to her and she said they were idiots and just RSVP, but I didn’t want to go without support and I needed to know a plus 1 was REALLY okay.  No one answered me.  Then, unclear if I was going or not, I guessed the least I could do was get a gift.  They didn’t have an address on their invitation, so I went to their gift registry and the only thing left was a $900 mattress.   So I wasn’t buying a $900 mattress. I had no idea what to do.

When I asked, her response was that THEY were idiots. I didn’t know where that left me. I was trying to do the right thing on a very difficult week and was getting NO help.   I just let the chips fall where they may and now, I’m a victim.  I wanted to scream, not just to HER, but to the world:

“Judge me when you’ve walked a fng mile in my shoes.”

We normally did something for our birthdays which were 3 days apart. I had taken my birthday off Facebook because I could not deal with it this year. I asked her to get together the Friday before as she was normally off on Friday, but she said she had to work. I was willing to take the day off. I was giving her a gift. I asked her if she wanted to get together.

She told me – right before the victim thing – that I hadn’t RSVP’d – that I hadn’t wished her a happy birthday, I hadn’t gotten a wedding gift, and SHE had to contact me for socializing.  All of that was wrong and her response to my email – that she lost – was also wrong.

And now she was telling me that the “victim thing was getting old.” My best friend.  Who was not only judging me incorrectly, but now labeling me.

Victim thing? I was the one who didn’t call her a “groupie” when she started dating a musician like another friend did and when I asked her why she put up with that judgment which that friend engaged in ALL the time, she would say, “Oh they’re good to me…” I was GOOD to her AND didn’t judge her or say stupid things to her, and now I was being told I was a victim. That was unfair.

I wasn’t the one who denied her $40 when she was flat broke like a family member did.  (No, I was not only willing to give her the $40, I had just gotten a check for 1k and offered it to her, which she took. To date, I’ve gotten $50 back – 8 months later – I NEVER learn.  I felt SO BADLY for her when the family member made such a big, hairy deal about $40 that I gave her $1040.00  What is WRONG with me sometimes? ). It KILLED me to have to ask her for the money 8 months after I’d loaned it and 6 months after we last spoke, but I needed it.  To get $50 in the mail weeks later felt like a smack in the face.  A HUGE smack in the face.

She wanted a “happy birthday” when I had asked her to get together the Friday before and didn’t want to deal with MY birthday.  Now, she’s angry and I’m being labeled a victim.  She also told me that I was the one who told her to stick up for herself and THAT was why she was saying what she was saying.  STICKING UP FOR HERSELF.  Like, I taught her. Right.

So she didn’t start with the judgmental friend or the cheap family member or the commitmentphobic boyfriend.  No, she started with ME on my worst week of the year.  Thanks.  When I taught you that, I obviously forgot to teach you some kind of moral compass that would get you to see that I was not the enemy.

I was emotionally, mentally and physically exhausted and trying hard to RSVP to a wedding I didn’t want to go to and to make time and SEE a friend I had a gift for.  I can usually figure these things out, but when I got NO HELP, I retreated. I’m an attorney. I argue for a living. I would have argued with her and made all my points had I had the energy.  But I didn’t.

The words rang in my head for weeks and I cried and cried, “The victim thing is getting old.” Really? Is that what this is? Because it just feels like grief smacking me in the head for 8 years. 8 long grueling years of physical, emotional and mental torment and financial ruin. That’s what it feels like.  I took my birthday off Facebook. I didn’t want to deal with MINE but I have to deal with YOURS?  What?  The reason I don’t normally ask to get together (but I did that week) was because she had a young child and a boyfriend. I figured I placed 3rd in her life and she would fit me in whenever. I wanted to see her without the child who would have been in school – but she was working. I was going to take the day off to see her.  But I never ask.  WHAT?  The world – including my very best friend – was mad.  Absolutely bonkers.  I was at such a low point and I guess that if I had ended it all right there, NO ONE would have thought they had anything to do with it and just about everyone I knew would have had a hand in it. (I’m omitting other things that went on with my family who did not ask me if I needed a ride to a family gathering which they knew I did and a woman I worked with who was being passive-aggressive and impossible). It was TRULY hell week.

People – even those who CLAIM to be empathic and caring and kind – say very stupid things to grieving people.

The messages are:  Please stop being in pain…WE can’t handle it.

Between the comment 4 years ago (“you’re a miserable human being”) from a family member that *I* was there for when he felt depressed and/or anxious, and the one 6 months ago from my very best friend, there have been so many other comments from people who were not as close to me such as, “Why aren’t you over this yet?” or “No more about Michael. Time to think about other things.”

The comments REALLY mean: we are sick and tired of you feeling this way.  Can you get over it, please?  And this is when I’m not even saying anything.  Just feeling crushed. And looking like I haz sads. Because I do.  NO ONE can handle your sads. Not your best friend, your family, your co-workers.  Everyone is like, STFU pls. TY! Smiley Face!

Anyone who thinks that I’m encouraging this continued grieving or somehow discouraging healing is completely wrong. I do not want to feel this way nearly 9 years since Michael’s death and almost 10 years since his diagnosis. I. do. not. I know what happy feels like and looks like. I’d like some of that back, please. I only had it for a little while, and – oh yeah – it’s not fair. I don’t want to be a victim, a whiner, or a bitter widow. I want to put this all behind me. I don’t want to feel this way anymore. I’m exhausted.  And I truly get those who check out due to the sheer energy emotional pain requires.

My kids wanted me to get a boyfriend…you’re young and smart and pretty, Mom. Thanks for the compliments, but I want Michael and no one else. That is just how it is.

Okay – so why aren’t you over it?  You should be over it.  You know that, right?

As if I wouldn’t be over it if I could be over it.  Do they think I LIKE feeling like this?  I am a grief counselor. I know what to do. I’ve done it. I’ve done it again and again.  I still cry just about every day.

Michael DiCarlo was the only person IN MY LIFE who was ever there for me.  I grew up in foster care never knowing if I was going back home, going to another foster family, going to a permanent adoptive family or (God forbid) being adopted by the crazy foster family I knew better than anyone else.  Unfortunately for me, the last option was the one that came true.  And by deeming them fit to adopt me, the Catholic Charities said, essentially, “This is normal.” – the way they acted – which was alcoholic (dad) and abusive (mom).

So I gravitated toward abusive men. That is what I knew. To me, that was not only normal but had a big fat bow on it, thanks to the Catholic Charities.

I fought against the abuse after a therapist told me, at the ripe old age of 30, that no one had the right to put their hands on me. I went to court to take out a restraining order on my ex when he slapped me across the face for not saying hello. There had been plenty of other incidents, much worse, prior to that, but that was the day I’d had enough.

My adoptive mother – about a year or so later – started across the room toward me during an argument. I said, without blinking, “If you lay one hand on me, I’m going to knock you out.”  I meant it.  And she knew it, and backed off.  Way off. I have never had to warn anyone else from striking me.  Once you realize that you have the right to NOT be hit, you start to gravitate toward those who (silly as this sounds) won’t hit you.

I still had horrible night terrors that had been with me since I was a child. About the age of 5 I started to hear whispers of conversations at night that the Catholic Charities were considering sending me to another foster home or back to my mother. I started to have night terrors then. Even as an adult, I slept with a light on when not with someone else. My first husband yelled at me if I said a word after 11 pm (and yes, that included 11:01).  After him, no matter how nice the guy, they didn’t want to hear a thing at 3 am. when I was struggling with anxiety.

That changed with Michael. Very early on, my eyes flew open, as they often did, at 3 am. The next thing I heard was, “Are you okay, hon?”  We had not known each other long (maybe a month?) and I believe that was my first overnight. How did he know?  Did I move and disturb him?  The room was pitch black. There was no way he could tell by seeing me. I didn’t say anything, but in the dark, his hand reached across and patted mine. I still can’t think of that night without crying.

Because it never changed. It was not the first blush of new love that caused him to zero in on me. It was not something he did during courtship and abandoned once the rings were on the fingers. No.  This was something he did throughout the years we were married.  He was always there. At 3 a.m. And within the first year, I stopped sleeping with the lights on when I was by myself.  A miracle occurred.  I felt safe and loved.  FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME.  Sometimes when I think about it now, I weep with a whimpering that I can’t even “get” that it’s coming from me….but it hurts SO badly.  And no one understands. NO ONE.

It stayed that way until about 2 years ago when I landed in the hospital and a few weeks later I had surgery and felt abandoned by most of those around me. Right after that surgery fiasco, I started to have night terrors again. DAMMIT.  There is no Michael to assuage my fears.  There is no one.

Then, I fractured my back and it wasn’t healing.  As I detail in my second book, Getting Back Out There, I broke my right hand in Hurricane Sandy and it was a bizarre break that wasn’t healing.  I slammed my foot down during a back spasm so I would not go down the stairs. They x-rayed my knee and discovered a chondroma, which needs to be watched. If it turns malignant, it’s very fatal.

Next, I was diagnosed with Lupus.  I stared at the results of the ANA and the double-stranded DNA and thought, “MICHAEL, where are you?”

My childhood and first marriage medical traumas were resurfacing. I didn’t want them to, but they were. When I was a child, my foster family went to doctors in the Bronx. I had to go to Manhattan where my mother was and the Catholic Charities were. It was always a long and lonely subway ride with one or the other of my parents (usually my father who didn’t talk on the subway).

When I was married my ex-husband did not go to any of my prenatal appointments and, when I and the baby were in distress on my 3rd delivery, he acted like I was bothering him by asking for some support.  In my abuse articles and in my You Tube videos of “My Story” I tell the tale of that harrowing night when I damn near died in childbirth because my husband wanted to be off with his girlfriend.

The only person who has ever gone to a doctor appointment with me and act like he cared was Michael.  After he passed I fractured my back and when it wasn’t healing properly, I found out I had Lupus.  These two very difficult things have been weathered by me, mostly alone. Every single appointment makes me miss him. There is no one there with me and no one who would want to be.  He was the only one who actually cared about the fact that I was sick or not feeling well or had some problem.  The morning before his seizure, the one that started the last year of his life, he had gone with me to an orthopedist and said he was worried about me.  The man had gigantic brain tumors threatening his very existence and he was worried about ME.  That kind of caring is hard to come by and I’ve only come by it ONCE.  It’s a very lonely world without it. Very lonely and very hard.  It is a terribly, horribly, achingly lonely road and most people I know have NEVER been as alone as I am and always have been – except for the short time Michael was there.  

When I feel hopeless,  I know that my books and my articles give hope to people who have none. I have always felt a responsibility to those people to “keep on keeping on….”  I have never wanted to think that my reputation of resilience would be tarnished if I decided to cash in all my chips.  Other days I wonder, “How much more should I handle/can I handle?”

But I know – I need to keep on keeping on. I tell people to TRUST THE PROCESS because that is what I did. I’m sorry but this is how I feel and if you have CHILDREN, this is how I really feel:

Unless you are terminally ill and don’t want to slide into death…you want control over it….it’s not okay to just check out.

It’s just how I feel.  I have certain beliefs about certain things.

I feel certain ways about certain things like I feel that it’s not okay to look at your phone during dinner. I feel that it’s not okay to not tip. I feel it’s not okay to expect others to answer texts immediately (I go unplugged for days at a time and it’s WONDERFUL). I feel it’s not okay to not be grateful for what you have…if that’s a house and a partner and children…CONCENTRATE ON THEM…be grateful for them…

I feel as if I was a good mother even though I didn’t have any role models and that didn’t matter to my kids. I feel as if I was good wife to Michael but couldn’t save him. I was a good lawyer but can’t work IN THE OFFICE 5 days a week and my job took away the telework option. I feel lost and alone.  So lost and so alone…but it’s not okay to check out.  Too many people depend on me to keep on keeping on. …  My readers and listeners want to know it gets better and it does.

I did THIS VIDEO on gratitude and loss right before the holidays (and my birthday and anniversary) – it’s about finding the GOOD THINGS in life. If you are feeling down and depressed, please watch the video and know YOU CAN DO IT. 

I have a moral compass of what I think is not okay…I do feel that unless you’re terminally ill and want to have control over the time of your dying, it’s not okay to just check out. It’s just not. It’s what I think. I endure a lot of pain…an awful lot.

But I don’t want to inflict pain on someone else and I don’t want my readers and listeners to lose hope. EVER. It is possible to think that checking out on loved ones is not okay and, at the same time, not being judgey. I just believe that there is always something you can find in the thing we call life – to give meaning to your existence. It’s up to you to find it and you CAN. ABSOLUTELY you can!!!

First Point: Understand There Is Some Negativity Connected To Suicide

Everyone feels their pain at 100 percent.  ~ John James, Founder Grief Recovery Institute

I can’t help but feel as if I have so much less than people who continue to take their own lives.  And when I read the sparkling tributes, I stop and think, “Well, why not me?”  What would my readers say if I just ended it all one day?  But more importantly – where would their hope go?  Would they still have it?  Maybe? Maybe not. Should I ask?

I raise this because there may be others living on the edge…contemplating ending it all…but the thought that maybe people won’t think so highly of them…keeps them breathing in and out….but then they find that a high profile person – someone with people who care, friends family – someone with money (you have no idea how MONEY makes a difference when you actually have some) – can end it all and still be lauded, think, “Why not me?”

People say, “Oh they had money and it didn’t make a difference.” EXCUSE ME, but I don’t know why not. I lost everything when Michael died, including my retirement plan and all my money.  I’ve had money. I’ve had a lot of money.  Right now, money would help ME and my mental state – NOT having money has been one thing that has threatened to push me over the edge.

They had partners.  Not having Michael here to share with me has threatened to push me over the edge.

They have children.  I didn’t kill myself for that reason. Find a reason to live. You can find it, especially if you have children. I made it my MISSION to find out what you need to do to be a HEALTHY mother and then I did it. It was NOT easy. I wanted to check out ALL THE TIME.  Despite my daughter’s constant sneer when she was a teenager, I refused to abandon her when that was the hardest time in my entire life.  When I continued to live for my boys, they were small, adorable cherubs.  I couldn’t think of checking out on them.

But my daughter was a moody, sullen, grieving teenager who longed for her father and blamed me for terrible things like encouraging her to go on an educational trip to Australia.  Yes, that’s the kind of awful mother I am. I force my child to go to a country most Americans only dream of getting to. I’m so rotten.  Despite her near-constant transmission of death-ray looks in my general direction for several years, I still took care of her. I made a long commute so she didn’t need to change schools and did the bulk of her college applications to give her a hand.

But these high-profile people had children.  UNDERAGE children…and they checked out and people said glowing things about them.  Wait.  Should we be doing that?  I understand NOT wanting to be judgmental of anyone in dire straits but don’t we hold parents to some kind of standard of sticking around for your child?  Isn’t that important?

I understand not wanting to speak ill of the recently departed, but normalizing suicide or making it seem “okay” when it’s not, is not the way to go. You have no idea how that lack of judgment might be affecting those who are holding off due to being afraid of being judged – might backfire.  One of the first things I thought of in the wake of these recent high-profile suicides was, “Hmmm….maybe people wouldn’t talk bad about me if I jumped off the GW…”  If I thought that, I can assure you – others have too.

Everyone feels their pain at 100 percent and no one has the right to decide how much emotional pain another must endure….but we can’t continue to gloss over the fact that high-profile suicides might have a detrimental effect on less visible people.

Because I’m sure it does.

Second Point: Stop Saying, “TALK ABOUT IT!” We Have, But No One Is Talking Back

Saying, “None of us know how much pain another is in….if you’re feeling depressed, talk to someone…” doesn’t quite cut it. No one who has contemplated suicide thinks that talking to someone will do it. I know that when I was at my lowest point, confiding in someone I thought would understand and care, being told, “You’re a miserable human being…” didn’t help. I know that talking about Michael and being told it’s time to get over it…doesn’t help.  It’s not JUST about – “Hey YOU depressed, suicidal person…TALK TO SOMEONE.” It’s about what to say BACK.

Because none of us knows what was said to friends and families of people who have recently taken their own lives….and what was said back.  This isn’t about making people feel guilty (if you didn’t know that you didn’t know, that’s okay), but about getting people to understand that the conversation has to be MORE than just, “Hey – talk to someone!”

It’s about hearing someone say, “I feel like throwing myself off a bridge…” and knowing the RIGHT thing to say…and that is not “You’re a miserable human being.”  Not. at. all.

Has this person talked to you lately?  Has anyone hinted at wanting to take their own life?  On average, a person thinks about suicide about 9 months before they do it. In those 9 months they might reach out to several people.  People don’t know WHAT to say when someone mentions that they are depressed or not feeling with it or whatever.  You can gently tell them about gratitude. You can gently point out what they have to live for. Don’t poo poo how they are feeling. Let them reach out and be there.  Tell them you want to hear how they feel and LISTEN empathically.

I know it’s uncomfortable. I KNOW that no one teaches us what to say, but I’m telling you what to say … or not say … JUST listen….and listen like you care.  Ask people, “How are you doing?” and for the love of all that is holy, please don’t complain to one friend that another is all whiny and complaining.  The friend who is listening may be thinking, “I was going to share with you but don’t want to be judged….” and then they suck it up and hold it in. Try to show others you are someone who will listen.  Yes, we understand that our pain annoys you, tires you, makes you wish we were just freaking happy…we wish that too…but we’re not.  Please know we’re trying.  DAMN IT, we’re trying.

I have reached out to people when I am feeling hopeless, and I am told to GET OVER IT.  I’m a grief counselor FFS.  I have done all the work…I know what to do and I have done it…stop telling me to JUST BE HAPPY. 

If that were possible, I would not be feeling gloomy NINE YEARS after Michael’s death.  But I do. And I sink into that black hole of despair every few months.

Stop telling me I’m a miserable human being because YOU don’t want to hear it.  I listen to others in pain.  Who is really the miserable one here?

Stop telling me that the victim thing is getting old.  I’m not a victim.  I’m a widow who is bleeding emotionally and thought you were my friend. I guess I was wrong.

Third Point:  Many Affected By Suicide Feel It Is A Selfish Act

Today someone posted in the GPYB Facebook group about her father’s suicide and how it affected her.  Both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain left behind a beautiful young daughter.  My friend who died by suicide a few years ago left behind a gorgeous, smart, funny 3 year old who was supposedly the apple of his eye.  His last emails to me were full of her antics and how she phrased things. He was so taken with her. How could he take his own life and leave her behind?  How?  Many in the GPYB Facebook group – affected by the suicide of one close to them, felt that suicide is selfish.  They don’t think about the impact on the people left behind.

This is a version of what I wrote:

I have a similar attitude of suicide as a selfish act – I had a boyfriend kill himself when I was 17. I had a best friend kill himself a few years ago. I suffer so much since Michael died but I felt that if I jumped off the George Washington Bridge (I have no idea why the idea of doing that is the one that seems “right” to me,) I would be betraying my readers.

I started to write a post about it this week and thought of my friends who thought about it, and those who have done it.  This was the original draft. I shortened it in the group:

I had a friend who was a nurse in Vietnam for TWO tours. 2 years of day and night bodies of 18-22 year olds torn apart. Dying each and every day. Her mother died when she was 5 and she went to live with her grandfather and her uncle who raped her every day until she was 16 when she fled. Ran away and somehow made it to nursing school and into the Army. She retired as a colonel and when the first Gulf War broke out she suffered PTSD flashbacks and started a plot to kill George Bush (the father). When she realized she couldn’t do it, she had a plan to kill herself. They hospitalized her at Walter Reed and then, for some reason known only to crazy clinicians there, they took them to the Wall.  I don’t know if this was going to make her confront her grief or what….it was a horror show.

Now, I was to the Wall years later with Michael who broke down there. My friend stood at the top of the grass just looking down at it (if you’ve never been there it’s hard to imagine how powerful it is) – and she fell onto the grass and started screaming…screaming…screaming….

She was going to kill herself…she could not stand the pain.  I saw Michael…who came home after a few months…I think they were on their 3rd boat that they lost IN CAMBODIA where they were not supposed to be.  I know how he broke down at the Wall…I know I had to carry him away. It was much better when we went down with Rolling Thunder.  Those trips were great and when he got there, he was surrounded by Harley riding Vietnam Vets and he felt peace and at home.  His eyes glistened whenever a fellow vet would say, “Welcome home, brother.”

It was great to see the healing. I pushed him for a few years to confront this. At first I felt guilty when he broke down and tourists and others were staring at him as he melted into the pavement, but once we joined the groups on Memorial Day for Rolling Thunder and he would walk down to the Wall at 5 am  where the vets had candle vigils and met the day together, I could see the change in him when it came to talking about it. As a grief counselor, I tended to stay “hands off” with family members, but I’m glad I interfered in his war grief and forced the confrontation.

To get back to my friend who had a breakdown at the Wall and wanted to kill herself….the nightmares were HORRIBLE…the days of despair into a black hole were torture to her.

Two friends of mine wanted us to go down there – to Walter Reed and yell at her – I said what Stephen Levine said,

NO ONE HAS THE RIGHT TO TELL SOMEONE HOW MUCH PAIN THEY SHOULD BE IN or HOW MUCH PAIN THEY SHOULD ENDURE.  No one has that right. 

I was FURIOUS with THEM. How dare you tell this woman – for whom life has been TORTURE that she must live? HOW DARE YOU.

I was angry at my friends, and working myself up to let go of my friend. I could not imagine the torture she endured every single day, and I knew I had no right to judge her if she opted out.

But she survived. And she went onto to help fund the Vietnam Women’s Memorial there (which is dedicated to the brave nurses) and to help other nurses and others who survived a childhood without her mother and who were sexually abused.

She’s amazing. Despite the pain, she finds the will to live in helping others.

Michael – who was a Vietnam Vet – and saw his best friend killed did not warm to people right away, but he warmed to her.  They were thick as thieves. He  said “I saw stuff, but I didn’t see it every day….the nurses did…” and my friend did TWO STRAIGHT YEARS of hell…and had nightmares of SEVERED ARMS AND LEGS coming at her. Michael had a sleep disorder because of the war, but it was nothing like hers.  She had continuous, nightly nightmares of severed arms and legs coming at her in waves…wave after bloody wave.

She would spend the day – after a night of these horrors – in the black pit of despair.  She wouldn’t answer the phone or the door. She lived in a very rural place, far from just about anyone. When I couldn’t contact her, I rode my motorcycle down there more than once to check on her and fully expected to find her dead.  And I would have respected that wish.  She had done enough.  She had been enough.  She was a good friend to me and I would do whatever I could for her.

She wanted to end it all….but thought of the NURSES who served and those who must be suffering as she was…and she got herself together and has lived a life of service since 1992. A LIFE OF SERVICE...to help others….

Some days I want to scream at everyone who kills themselves, “IF I AM STILL HERE, YOU SHOULD STILL BE HERE.” I know there are others, like my friend, the Colonel Nurse, who had a more painful life than I have and whose suicide would be perfectly understandable.  I also know that everyone feels their pain at 100 percent and no one one has the right to tell someone else how much pain they should endure BUT I also know that you can handle things and get through things you could have sworn that you wouldn’t or couldn’t. I do not believe that I or my friend is any stronger than anyone else. You can pull it up from inside you. You can find the will to live and to heal whatever is upsetting you. YOU CAN DO THIS. 

Talking about my pain or my friend’s pain is not to shame anyone else or to attempt to lessen the impact of their distress, but to tell you that we are not special, we are not unique.  We just decided to live and to find the ways and means to heal our lives and to make them meaningful and YOU TOO can do this.  YOU CAN DO THIS.

When my first marriage ended, I wanted to kill myself I was in such pain but what would that do to my children? Over the years since Michael passed, I have had many dark days…MANY…I lost EVERYTHING with his death including the only person who was ever there for me.

To avoid turning this blog into my pain journal, I started a new blog, Rope Burns. I never wanted my breakup readers to think they could not share their feelings here when I was going through such a tremendous loss.  I truly believed that the pain at the end of a breakup can be devastating and absolutely CAN drive you to the brink of suicide.  To continue to give my blog readers an outlet and to keep them from comparing their pain to mine, I started Rope Burns.

Again, everyone feels their pain at 100 percent.

Almost a year after I started Rope Burns to process what was happening to me, Michael passed. I was in excruciating pain.  Like nothing I had ever felt before.  Despite the terror of my childhood, the horribly abusive relationships, the pain I felt thinking of losing Michael, I was hardly prepared for how bad it really felt. I would come home at night, emotionally exhausted from driving and working and driving and trying to keep my teenage daughter, lost in her own grief and adolescent angst, on the straight and narrow. I would think of Michael and I would literally fall to my knees…feeling punched in the gut…I would gasp to catch my breath as the tears whipped down my face and the most god-awful pain crippled me and prevented me from standing up. I lay on the floor crying until I could cry no more. I had no idea it would be that painful.

I wanted to end it in the WORST way….those horribly dark days were the WORST ever and I did not want to live.  My boss was all over my case and telling me he had lost his mother a few years prior and he wasn’t walking around like a zombie. My daughter was angry and distraught.  My boys were not understanding me being strict with her. I felt the world had gone completely mad.  Michael would always say to my daughter, “Listen to mum…” He would tell the boys, “TALK TO  YOUR MOTHER.”

The voice of reason was gone. And all reason was gone. The kids were angry and hurt and not appreciating how much pain I was in. These are the people I had lived for.  These are the people I had given my all to.  Why were they judging me?  Why weren’t they just loving and supporting me?  I thought they would act the way Michael would have wanted them to, but they didn’t. I didn’t get it and it upset me greatly. I had a wonderful family before Michael passed.  Now it was falling apart.  What. the. hell. 

I wanted OUT.  I wanted off the planet. I was too tired for too long and the one person who ever had helped me was GONE. I wanted out.

But what would you guys think? What would readers (and now podcast listeners) think that have found hope in my books and my life? What would that do to them?  Could I really jump off the planet and not care about others who were struggling to hang on after a breakup?  Really?  Could I?  Wow.  I would totally hate myself if I could.  And I would not blame anyone who would hate me.

When my friend Steve killed himself, I didn’t even know. We were going to have a get together in Dallas where we all had worked and the majority of us lived.  Steve and I were in New York. I had dinner with him a few months before and had an upbeat email from him in recent months. I said to a friend of mine, “I’ll find Steve and drag him with me…” I thought of the trip and it would be SO MUCH FUN.  Steve and I got along so well…he called me his best friend that he never saw.  He was always on the outside looking in to our group until I came along. I had no idea he wasn’t part of the group and just pulled him in. He was from New Jersey and I was from New York and we were both working in Dallas.  He had been there and didn’t fit in.  Before I came they had a Secret Santa and Steve’s gift was the book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”  He knew no one liked him.  Someone had said he was an “odd duck.”  He thought it was from being from Jersey.

But I was part of the group and got along with everyone. I had no idea that Steve was on the outside looking in – that others thought he was an “odd duck.”

I was from New York and I liked him and had no idea about his past with the group.  He was assigned to be my mentor – he was a 5th year attorney and I was a 1st year.

I came to the group and got along with everyone.  We worked long hours and it was like being in a foxhole.  We covered for each other because the partners who ran the firm were psychotic and we absolutely covered for each other because the expectations were out of whack with reality – anyone’s version of reality anywhere on the planet – and to make it seem as if we were meeting those expectations, we covered each other’s work, time, hours and butts. It was a very necessary thing to do.

So I pulled Steve into the group that I had no idea he was not already a part of. We socialized with the group and everyone got to know him and like him.  He had a very dry sense of humor and people who got to know him appreciated him. He was afraid to talk before I came along.

He had anxiety issues that he shared with me and no one else.  I talked to him every day when we worked together, and he told me his deepest darkest secrets but he never said he wanted to kill himself.  He would say to me, “I have no idea why I tell you everything….” It was my clinician hat, I was sure.  But he loved me and I loved him.  So very much.

So I said, “I will find Steve….” and I imagined the two of us on a plane yakking away like old times. Then she told me he was gone.  He had committed suicide a few days before his 40th birthday a few months prior.

I was never told, and I went to his Facebook page where he had had photos of me and him. I wanted those photos….and they were gone.  His family didn’t publish an obituary. I checked the New York and Texas bar pages and he was marked deceased.

For “closure” I had to stare at those bar pages.  Why no obituary?  Was his family ashamed?  He didn’t deserve that. He didn’t.  His father was a prominent doctor.  Maybe that was the issue.

But at the same time I was angry.  I could. not. believe it.  He had a very well-connected family. He had money. A lot of money.  He had a daughter he adored.  He was smart and funny. He went to Ivy League schools.  He was a great lawyer.  His ex was a pain in the butt, but whose wasn’t?  Was that anything to KILL yourself over?  To abandon your daughter?  No, it wasn’t.  Yes, I found myself being judgmental but honestly, I would have killed to switch places.  Give me the bank balance, the small lovely child, the prominent law firm senior associate position,  the non-Lupus physically  fit body….and I’ll “make do” with it.  I felt SO angry.

Why, Steve, why? 

I miss you, you big jerk. 

I loved you and you knew it. 

Why aren’t you here? 

What in the world could have made you crash like that? 

I needed you after Michael passed and then you decided to end it all. 

WHY?  WHY?

It’s not just Steve’s life I would have traded for mine.

I would love to have money. It would take the edge off some days. I would love to travel to France with Eric Ripert and have an Italian partner and a beautiful child.  I have not been to France and don’t know Chef Ripert, but I have had an Italian partner and beautiful children. I can’t imagine leaving them like that.  To me, it feels not okay.  I’m not trying to be judging. I just don’t get it. I really don’t.  As much pain as I am in some days…. physical from the Lupus and other ailments and psychological: missing Michael and feeling alone in the universe and judged by my friends as somehow not trying hard enough to get over losing the only person who was ever there for me.  Ever.

I get ZERO credit from my friends and family that I’m still here.  Grieving, broke and grappling with Lupus that won’t go into remission.  I started chemo for it a few months ago and it’s horrible. Simply horrible. I feel alone, lonely, financially stretched to the max, misunderstood, not understood and physically challenged in so damn many ways.  Instead of getting credit for moving through each day, I get judgment and disdain…but don’t judge those who opt to check out…no, no, no.  That would be WRONG. 

I’m sorry…I have no idea what Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade was feeling or what was happening..I know plenty of people who have made it through so much terror and anguish and opted to live.  I know that money and popularity doesn’t take away the pain but NOT having that adds to it. Was it gratitude?  I know I have to WORK at being grateful for what I have. I have no idea what the issue was. WHAT WAS THE ISSUE?

I’m still angry at my boyfriend and my friend…both had so much to live for…and I do think, on one hand no one has the right to tell another how much pain they should suffer but I do think that sometimes suicide is a selfish act and can trigger others to kill themselves…others who might be on the fence…and as a clinician I saw so many do it in an angry way….one guy….after his girlfriend was doubting the future of the relationship…he had wanted to get engaged on Christmas and she said no…so …he hung himself on Christmas Eve…she came in and he was hanging in plain site…I had to counsel her…she was a wreck…it was such an angry act….him hanging next to the Christmas tree was a major F U to her. It was just to get back at someone…and it sucks.

I had a client a few years ago…I saw him EVERY DAY for almost a year. We went through his father’s suicide…OMG…this poor guy… was so traumatized from cleaning up his father’s brains all over the wall when he was just 17…it was so selfish of his father and horrible…terrible. On one hand, I get it and on the other, it makes me furious. But let’s not judge those who are in so much pain they check out of this world.  Even if they leave beautiful young daughters behind or even if they leave 17-year old sons to wipe up their brains from the wall.

So please know, that if you opt to live, there is healing, there is possibility through the pain – despite the pain – and sometimes you find the bright future because you weathered the pain. I still have no idea what awaits me as I move through this grief, but I’m willing to stick around to try to find out.  And you can too.  Like me,

You Can Do This

I am absolutely in favor of not judging the pain someone else is in and not insisting that anyone live their life with that much pain if they can’t.  But honestly, there is a bright side to living.  To giving. To helping those who are sliding into despair when you’re having a good day.  Think about it.   I honestly feel as if I would rob a lot of people who don’t even know me if I killed myself. My work would be tainted.  The hope I express would be questioned.  To the people I insist that IT GETS BETTER…they would say, “So why didn’t you live through it?” and if someone out there is teetering on the edge, I don’t want my suicide to be the thing that pushes them over.

I won’t do it.  Like my friend, the Army nurse, and the woman in the Facebook group who talked about her father’s suicide,  I will power through and dedicate my life to service.  That is what the woman who wrote the Facebook post about her father’s suicide has decided to do.  She’s a therapist too and she powers through.

YOU CAN DO THIS.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).


Copyright 2007-2018 Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.
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About Susan J. Elliott

Author, Attorney, Grief Counselor, Media Commentator, Motivational Speaker, Relationship Expert, Breakup Coach BA English Mount Holyoke College, magna cum laude, High Honors, Phi Beta Kappa M.Ed., Counseling Psychology, Cambridge College J.D. University of California, Berkeley Licensed to practice law in federal and state courts in NY. Licensed but Inactive in Texas and District of Columbia Creator of the Getting Past Your Past and Getting Past Your Breakup programs, seminars, workshops, bootcamps, videos, blogs and podcasts Author of Getting Past Your Breakup, Getting Back Out There and the GPYP Workbook
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